ZAK STEVENS Talks ARCHON ANGEL And SAVATAGE – “I Love That There Are So Many People Who Still Want To See The Band Active”
February 26, 2020, a month ago
Zak Stevens’s voice has been around for many years, from the early ‘90s and the classic Savatage album Edge Of Thorns, to Circle II Circle in the 2000s, and performing live with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Stevens has returned with his new band Archon Angel, who recently released their debut album through Frontiers Records Srl. His bandmates includes several seasoned names; Aldo Lonobile guitars/songwriter, Yves Campion on bass, drummer Marco Lazzarini, Antonio Agate on keyboards & piano (Studio), with Simone Mularoni (of DGM, Sweet Oblivion) and Alessandro Del Vecchio (Edge of Forever, Jorn, Hardline) part of the writing team.
BraveWords contributor Rich Catino spoke to Zak on the phone soon after his return from Archon Angel’s first live show on the 70000 Tons Of Metal Cruise. This is what he had to say about the cruise festival, Archon Angel, Savatage, and TSO.
BraveWords: Let’s start with a recap of the 70000 Tons of Metal Cruise. How was that playing with a new group of guys for the first time?
Zak: “Oh, it was fun, but when you meet the band the day before the first show (we had a rehearsal in Miami), gotta say never done this before. You know, we emailed back and forth, talked on the phone (because we live in different parts of the world), but I said to everybody ‘send luck, we need luck’ in such a situation. I mean I nitpicked a few things, but they were well rehearsed ahead of time, and they have lots of talent. Those guys also really nailed the Savatage songs, and the crowd loved to hear them. But it was different playing outside, especially because a storm was passing through, so between the wind and the boat rocking a bit, it was tough holding your ground, moving around, keeping your footing, and singing. The wind was blowing so much I looked like I had short hair. (laughs)”
BraveWords: I was reading the bio for Archon Angel, it says “former Savatage and Circle II Circle vocalist.” Why is that?
Zak: “I don’t know about the wording on that. Maybe because Circle II Circle has been on hiatus for a few years, because we went thirteen years and seven albums. It’s not a thing where someone came out and said ‘it’s over’, because I would never say that in the music business. Things change minute to minute, as soon as you say something is definitely done, it’s not. And Savatage, we are in a unique position; I don’t know any other band that’s basically a subsidiary of a large holding company, called TSO. There is so much going on with TSO, and everybody in Savatage who is involved in TSO every year, slows down the progress of Savatage. Which I understand, TSO is a huge monster of an operation. So the writing, the wording in the bio for Archon Angel should be different; ‘Zak Stevens, singer of Savatage and Circle II Circle’ would be more correct grammatically. But the people writing the bio, working for Frontiers who is an Italian label, the translation over to English is different from how we would write and use wording in America. It’s the language barrier.”
BraveWords: The songwriting credits for the Archon Angel album list guitarist Aldo Lonobile, Simone Mularoni, and Alessandro Del Vecchio. What was your contribution, if any, to the lyrics and music?
Zak: “I only wrote the lyrics to one song, and a piece of another. One of the things coming out of writing for Circle II Circle for so long I really didn’t have a ton of inspiration for writing lyrics right now (laughs). I wanted it to be a wide ranging team effort. So my wife, Katherine, came up with the name of the band, and concept, because we talk and bounce ideas off each other. So this was all born out of conversations, and we work together in many aspects of music. So I said to her, ‘you know the old Bernie Taupin and Elton John thing?’ ‘Would you mind being Bernie, and just let me be Elton John?’ And she said, ‘that’d be awesome.’ I said, ‘if you weren’t my hero already, you are now’, (laughs). So yeah Katherine wrote 90% of the lyrics, and the fact she was behind the concept, it works. It put me on like a ten member team. Paul O’Neill would always say to me ‘young Zachary, it’s all about the album, make it great, you put your pain and effort into it, because without it, nothing else matters. Touring can’t happen right without a strong album behind you.’
“And it also goes back to my process with him in Savatage, him being the major story writer and lyricist, and I weighing in on vocal melodies, arrangements. But I’m not always that excited about writing an entire album’s worth of lyrics, and I also know that are other people who are on a higher level than me as far as lyrics. It’s about the best product we can make. So I know when to take a back seat and do my job, focus on great vocals, and little details in the lyrical scheme and change things here and there that fits me. Just like in the Savatage days. I always approved the final mixes with Archon Angel. After you have the members of the band, outside writers, who’s mixing the album, etc., you have about ten people on the team. I like that, it makes it a little better for the final product, pushing for excellence. So my process is a little different than when in Circle II Circle, I wanted to write and get better, and it was exciting back then. Now I don’t feel it’s something I have to do, be the lyric guy, to be in the business. Sometimes it was crazy in Circle, the amount of music every year or two, and sometimes I couldn’t be there for everything (my kids were young), the production wasn’t so great on a couple albums. I took time off from Savatage at the time to do things on my own time. And you look back, some things were great, some not so much. But you learn. But these days I don’t feel like to have to stress about lyrics, I’d rather focus on the vocals if that’s my part.”
BraveWords: Obviously several of these Archon Angel songs could have fit on a Savatage, or Circle II Circle album. Are there any that you feel are different, could be on a solo album? For example “Faces Of Innocence”?
Zak: “Yeah, you know I never thought of that. They were coming at me with different ideas, variety, and I want to keep doing that with these Archon Angel albums. When I first heard ‘Faces Of Innocence’ I thought of Joe Lynn Turner’s era of Rainbow. That’s all I really thought about, and I used him for inspiration. Well, ‘The Serpent’ really felt like something Jon Oliva would write. I use to call Jon the Mad Hatter, (laughs). ‘Brought To The Edge’ is a little different, ’Under The Spell’, that to me is really different, got somewhat of a Alice in Chains feel. The counterpoint, that’s always been a thing even before Savatage. ‘Who’s In The Mirror’ maybe reminds me of newer Queensrÿche.”
BraveWords: Frontiers Records are known for projects, collaborations, sometimes only one or two albums from a group. Is Archon Angel a band, and will you do some tour dates?
Zak: “Yes, it is a band and we plan on making more albums, and we already started playing on the Tons Of Metal cruise, and we have a date in Greece in April. Going to Cyprus, Istanbul, we will do maybe two weeks at a time. We have people out there who want to see us, and we want to make more music. It’s definitely a band.”
BraveWords: Are any of these songs you wish were for a Savatage album?
Zak: “(laughs), man, these questions are good; ‘Return Of The Storm’, when I first heard it, it took me right back to Wake Of Magellan, the title was obviously spawned from that album. When I heard the orchestral and piano, and the riff, it sounded like waves. So there was no doubt it was about the ocean. And yeah, I talked to Oliva and he’s aware we got these lyrics going on over here.”
BraveWords: What does the future hold for Savatage, any live shows, new music? Reissues, remasters, a documentary, live DVD?
Zak: “I can speak for myself, and the guys in Savatage, Jon (Oliva) and I, all the guys, we talk. I’ll say to Jon ‘how about a new song?’ He’ll say ‘I got twelve or thirteen right now, we should work.’ And when I’m in Florida he’ll send me some ideas. We’d like to do that, but there is some frustration because of it not happening maybe this year, or the next. I just have to be on call, ready for when something will happen. Like when we did the Wacken show in 2015. But I would never say that completely finished, because when I do that’s when we will get an offer to do a record, or some live shows. Maybe we will talk about that it’s dead, as a joke (laughs), and then maybe someone will say ‘it’s time to do some live shows’. Like reverse psychology, (laughs). Also, I wouldn’t go out there and say ‘I’m sick of hearing about a Savatage reunion’, because that’s not really the way I feel as it is. I love that there are so many people who still want to see the band active. Myself, I have my own vision of how a new Savatage show would look today, like incorporate some of the TSO type stage production, the orchestra, using media to tell a little story behind each song, like rock theater. I fantasize about it all the time. We are lucky it is not the case that someone has made some kind of official announcement that Savatage is over, please no more questions. That’s not the case, and I don’t feel that way. I am always very positive, and prepared for when some Savatage activity happens.
“As far as Savatage reissues, remasters, live DVD, I don’t know yet, but we have been asking about that. The live show from Wacken, from what I understand, they have lots of hours of footage and I’d love to see that released, because everything was recorded, the making of, etc. I saw the live clips the festival put online and that sounded great, probably very little corrections need to be made. But because of Paul’s passing we have been in such a transitional stage because Paul had his hands in everything. Decisions about remasters, TSO rehearsals, he touched everything. So everyone has been taking care of organizing the business for both TSO and Savatage. It’s a large group of people who are part of the decision making for what is best, the best move next, for both bands. And Jon Oliva is part of the committee, with Night Castle management, music directors which also includes a Savatage guy Al Pitrelli, and there is talent coordinators. Gosh, it’s been almost three years since Paul O’Neill passed. I mean in the beginning it was like ‘well, does the TSO show change?’ And a few different things happened with this year’s show. I’d love to see a Savatage documentary. There have been a few Savatage compilations, but no official video released.
BraveWords: Are you involved in any other projects?
Zak: “Well there a couple things boiling that I can’t say yet because they are not finalized. But, I promise, if they do happen I will call you first for a BraveWords exclusive. It’s not guaranteed, people are talking, but I can’t jump ahead of the story. But I would really like you to report it first because you have been a longtime friend and supporter. Katherine and I are slowing writing a separate album, that’s more like a Zak Stevens album, it’s still rock, but wide ranging in style and sound. Me and my wife are working together, and I’ll be back on drums. Because, if you all don’t know, I use to play drums. I did get back behind the kit on the cruise for two songs, one from Helloween, ‘I Want Out’. And I’ll continue to do some guests appearances on other people’s music which I have done before in the past.”
“I also give voice lessons, that’s something I always work on, we have students all around the world, from Norway to North Carolina. So we teach, teaching me on top of my vocal game, helps me practice what I preach more. I mean, when I started teaching three years ago my theory has gone way up, my knowledge of theory, key changes, scales, modes, etc. Never stop learning always tell my students that. I tell my students two things. ‘One, are you ok knowing you will never know everything you need to know about vocals? If yes, and two, you will learn until the day you stop singing. And if yes, keep with your vocal training.’ It’s a lifelong learning process for me, so it is for my students.”
(All photos by Joel Barrios)